Lava, Javed Akhtar, Star Publications Pvt Ltd., Dec 2011.
Kaifi Azmi once memorably described a film lyricist’s job as first digging a grave and then finding a body to fit it! Needless to say, he managed to find some spectacular bodies. So has Javed Akhtar, one of the most popular film lyricists of our times and, coincidentally, Azmi’s son-in-law. In fact, several of Akhtar’s songs have far exceeded the brief extended to a song writer by the Hindi film industry; they have risen beyond their time and circumstance and spoken to our collective consciousness. Blurring the definition of lyric and poetry, there is a great deal in Javed Akhtar’s cinematic ouvre that is outstanding poetry, such as this lyric from the film 1942: A Love Story which contains within it tremulous beauty and technical finesse in near-perfect proportions:
Kuch na kaho, kuch bhi na kaho
Kya kahna hai kya sun-na hai
Mujhko pata hai, tumko pata hai
Samay ka yeh pal thum sa gaya hai
Aur iss pal mein koyi nahin hai
Bas ek mein hoon, bas ek tum ho
The Hindi film industry — and its sorority of regional-language sister industries in the sub-continent — has elevated the song-and-dance sequence to a rare art form. Inspired partly by turn-of the-century stage adaptations of popular "musicals" in the West and partly by the equally popular though entirely home-grown Parsi theatre, film songs serve a variety of purposes. Studded at judicious intervals all through the story, they can make a more telling statement than mere dialogue; they can be both entertaining and illuminating; they can, of course, leaven an otherwise flat story with humour and spice and colour. Though the average song "picturisation" does tend to require large dollops of "willing suspension of disbelief" — given the mind-boggling change of costumes, the hordes of incredibly dressed background artistes who descend every time the hero and heroine romance against sylvan backdrops (imagine something more incongruous than Rajasthani folk dancers on a Swiss mountainside) and the callisthenic exercises that pass for dance movements — the results are, to say the least, eye-catching. In fact, many a "hit" song has contributed to a "hit" film!
It would be fair to say, film songs have, by and large, served the Hindi film industry rather well in the last 80-odd years of constant use and abuse. Yet, oddly enough, little serious work has been done either on the craft of song writing itself or on the men who pen these lyrics. Though there are plenty of biographical studies of eminent film personalities, there has been nothing whatsoever on the film lyricist, his compulsions and inspirations. For the average film buff, there is precious little on what goes on behind the scenes, what constitutes a great song that might catch the nation's fancy for a given time till the next big one comes along and why some songs stay "evergreen", the oldies-goldies as they are lovingly called.
However, since much of film lyric-writing is in the nature of a command performance, Akhtar has written another set of poetry too, one that is a truer reflection of his real concerns and a more faithful echo of his own poetic voice. His first collection, Tarkash, meaning ‘quiver’ published in 1995, established him as the writer of the nazm. With his second volume, Lava, we see him dabbling in both the ghazal and the nazm and I personally rate his ghazals as being superior to his nazms. Conventionally, and by the admission of several poets themselves, the ghazal is relatively easier to write; the poet has a time-honoured ‘mould’ of the two-line couplet (sher) in which the poet pours an equally time-honoured repertoire of words and images. The nazm, on the other hand, demands far more mehnat and mushaqqat (labour and diligence) from the poet; as the late poet Shahryar used to say, the nazm has a will of its own and often takes the poet on an uncharted course in a way that the ghazal can not and does not.
The matter of technique and labour aside, I do believe Javed Akhtar reveals himself fully to us as a poet in his ghazals. The nazms contained in this collection, several of which he has recited with great verve and passion at recent mushairas, have immense aural charm; stunning, multi-hued images tumble out of them as though in a kaleidoscope, dazzling us with bursts of ideas and thoughts. The nazms also have a questioning, probing quality as though the poet is using the nazm to ask larger metaphysical questions about the world around him, as in Kainat, Aansoo, Yeh Khel kya Hai? where he creates an avalanche of questions.
The pace and tempo, the almost quicksilver-like quality of the nazms, is replaced by a quiescence and lucid stillness in the ghazals. If the nazms have the swiftness and haste of a bubbling mountain brook, the ghazals have the sedateness and leisure of a river that has descended to the plains.
Brimful with the pain of loss, longing and loneliness, the ghazals contained in Lava show Akhtar’s mastery over the genre. Using both short and long beher (metre and rhyming scheme), he infuses the classical template of the ghazal with a sensibility that is modern and unconventional, as in:
Bahut aasan hai pehchan iss ki
Agar dukhta nahi to dil nahi hai
(It is easy to tell its identity
If it doesn’t ache, it isn’t the heart)
Aaj woh bhi bichad gaya hamse
Chaliye yeh qissa bhi tamam hua
(Today, I lost him too
So, this matter too ends here)
Like the earth that spews molten rock from deep within its bosom in the form of lava, Javed Akhtar’s ghazals emerge from some deep crevice within his soul. Flowing like a molten river, gleaming and incandescent on the surface but rippling with a singeing and scorching heat, this collection hides unexpected depths. But just as, upon cooling and calming, the lava that erupts from the innards of the earth can also nurture and nourish, so too can this collection of poetry that is by turns angry and philosophical, questioning and answering, restless and restful.